Chapter #1 – Lost in the Woods

Nova recognised the sensation of lying in a hospital bed: the itchy roughness of the sheets, the hardness and stench of the mattress, the cold, dampness of the air, and the general lacklustre mood that permeated the space around her. There were faint sounds of people running and speaking in the darkness, with only a beam of light spreading from the door. The only difference this time was the sharp pain ringing through her head, enough to overwhelm her dizziness.

She had done it, again. And it was only March.

Well, perhaps it could set a new record, she thought, resisting the urge to bang her head against her bed. Not like she could do it anyway — her head felt so heavy she wondered if she had been implanted with a bowling ball in her sleep. Oh no, this was worse. Her head was bandaged.

She stifled the cry coming up her throat and forced her eyes shut. There was pain in her ankle (also bandaged), pain in her back, her shoulder blade, and even her butt.

As usual, Nova’s primary concerns were the damages and cost her little accident may have incurred; by damages, she was worried about the staircase and possible spillage of blood; and by cost, she was worried about the repair and hospital fees which she must find some way to pay for.

She paid little heed to her injuries — after all, any impairment could easily be adapted to and dealt with.

It was hard to calculate it all in the midst of the dizziness and a horrid pain in her head, but as Nova struggled to form a sum, a cold sensation crept up along her blanket with a rustle. She cracked open her eyes, and there, looking even more unearthly in the darkness, was the same boy she had seen earlier in the day.

He retracted his hand once he noticed her gaze, and hid himself in the shadows of the curtains, his chin so low it was almost touching his chest. His wide, child-like eyes would glance up every so often to peek at Nova’s expression, but Nova’s lack of reaction seemed to make his chin sink all the more each time, till it was close to impossible to see his eyes.

Nova was calm as she spoke, her voice cracking as she tried a whisper. “Come here.”

He didn’t move.

Now that her vision had adjusted to the darkness, Nova wasn’t surprised to see that it was already night. The sky outside was pinkish with clouds, and not a sign of the moon anywhere. There were about three other people in the same ward with her, and judging by their lack of movement, she was certain that they have all fallen asleep. Her bed was the closest to the door, which was really just a large hole in the middle of the wall, but there was a large curtain sheltering her bed from its light, allowing her to see the boy without obstruction.

Nova cleared her throat and repeated herself, patting the side of her bed. “Please, come here.”

It was always strange to see the different ways ghosts move. The boy did as she said, floating over without any motion, his eyes focused on the floor. He looked young, around fifteen years of age, and wore a yellow cartoon shirt faded from overuse, black shorts, and no shoes. Since the clothes they appeared in were usually the ones they wore at death, Nova held back a wince at the realisation that the boy might have died at home.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” he began, and then bit his lower lip.

“It’s okay,” Nova said. “I was clumsy.”

The boy remained staring at the ground as his fingers fumbled around each other.

“What’s your name?” Nova asked, when it seemed like he wouldn’t start speaking.

The boy glanced at her for only a second before he redirected his eyes to the floor. “Sean.”

“Sean,” Nova repeated. “How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

“And why were you looking for me?”

He flinched, and for a moment Nova regretted her efficiency in broaching the subject. A shiver seemed to travel through his figure, dispersing it into mist, as his fingers rubbed against each other.

A sense of unease rose inside Nova, though somehow it felt foreign and unusual, as though it didn’t belong to her. She couldn’t name any reason why this young boy would make her feel this mix of emotions… of fear and hesitation, of anxiety and desperation. But, just as quickly as it started, it faded into nothingness.

And Sean looked up, determination in his eyes.

“I-I want you to talk to my parents,” he said. “My father doesn’t want to see my mother, and I don’t want them to fall apart. Please help me convince them not to.”

“Fall apart?” There were many ways to interpret this statement; the most obvious one stood staring in Nova’s face. “Divorce?”

The word itself seemed to have some kind of an effect on him, but Sean kept his cool, and nodded. If he still had a body, Nova was sure he would look as pale as, well, a ghost.

Nova stifled a sigh. In the past, every time a ghost approached for her help, she always had one question in her mind: would she regret helping, or would she regret not helping?

This case, it wasn’t just an issue of granting a last regret, but fixing a broken marriage. If that alone wasn’t complicated enough, she also had to fix it as a messenger of their dead child.

“You realise you are asking a lot of me,” Nova said.

Sean nodded. Of course he knew that. It must have been the reason why he was so anxious.

“You want me to talk to your parents,” she said. “What do you want me to say?”

“T-Tell them that I don’t want them to get a divorce!” Sean said. “Or… Or I’ll haunt them for the rest of their lives!”

Nova stifled a laugh. “Aren’t you already haunting them?”

Sean held back his reply.

“I’m not really fond of letting too many people know of my abilities,” Nova said. Telling others often tore open old wounds she would prefer sewn shut; the people closest to her know nothing about it, and convincing strangers of her powers often took more energy and pain than she would like to expose herself to. Also, it was just really strange to open up to strangers about something so personal.

“I’ll need to act as though I knew you while you were alive. Right now, please tell me as much as you can about yourself, and big events in your life, as well as your parents, who they are, and how I can find them. The best details are the ones that only you and your parents would know, and the second best details are the stuff you will tell your friends.”

The more Sean spoke, the more his nervousness seemed to ebb away. He talked about his childhood, how he wanted to be an astronaut, and then later a pilot; how he would piece together wooden puzzles of horses and cars and planes; his schools, his friend that liked to catch frogs and release them the next day, his teacher that taught him the difference between steel and copper; and the video games he often played and replayed. Because he was an only child, he had no playmate at home, and found himself getting rather distanced from his parents because of their work schedules. Often times he would be alone, and neither of them will be back till late at night.

Despite that, Sean vividly painted scenes of his father and himself, of how they often played video games together and how Sean often won, of how they often got into ridiculous arguments about ridiculous things, but laugh over it the next day.

There was something about listening to someone else’s stories that Nova loved; not just because it was nice to imagine a happy episode in their life, but also because it was like listening to a fairy tale.

Sean continued long into the night, and though Nova had no intention of doing so, she found herself lulled into a comfortable sleep. Sean must have realised it and left in the middle of the night, though Nova was sad to admit that she had no idea when.

In her dreams, she saw her father, her brother and herself, playing video games together, and saw herself beating both of them. In her dreams, she fought with them over ridiculous things, and laughed about it the next day. In her dreams, she was as old as she was, but her father and brother were of the same age as when she saw them last. Then she was alone again; her father’s sleeping face passing them in the coffin; her brother’s bloodied smile as he perished in her arms.

It’s nice to listen to people’s lives, Nova thought, as she opened her eyes to a dimly lit ceiling. Sean was already gone, but the sun hadn’t appeared. She could feel a familiar heat choking her, mucus flooding her chest, and an ache beneath her ribs that tore her insides. She closed her eyes.

As Nova felt tears leak beneath her eyelids, she found herself drifting away, sinking lower and lower… until her soul landed onto something soft and warm, cradling her. She felt the large hand of a man stroking her head, the laughter of girls and a woman cheering her on. Nova’s fingers were pressing on something hard and cold, each pressure bringing out a musical note. This was… a piano? Strange. When did she ever play a piano?

The cold on her fingertips spread to the rest of her body. The laughter and cheers stopped. The brightness and light fell away. There was only darkness.

And a sob. Someone was crying. Someone was wiping her cheeks and rubbing her eyes…

No, it was herself. She was crying. She was all alone, abandoned, thrown away.

She felt her fingertips graze a piano again, but they never made the same sound.

Someone was calling her name. The voice of a woman. The woman apologised, placing her warm lips against Nova’s forehead, and then walking away with quickly. Nova tried to call for her, but she couldn’t make a sound. There was a mist between her and the woman, a mist taking away all of her sense, clouding her eyes and mind. Nova wanted to scream. She wanted to run after the woman and ask for an explanation. But before she could, hands held onto hers, and the large hand of the man stroked her head again. She couldn’t protest. She held fast. And the mist increased, becoming concrete, becoming a wall.

Someone was calling her name. A different voice. A man. He sat at the head of a long table and stared at her with ferocity. Nova cowered.

“Why?” he asked. “Why?”

There was no anger in his voice. Just grief. His expression fell away into one with tears, as his sobs joined a chorus of others. Everyone was crying. She stood… no, she lay before them, on a white bed. They collapsed by her side, their tears soaking the sheets, and all she could do was watch. A window, narrow but long, stretched across the wall to her right. There weren’t curtains on it, just steel rails, lined against the glass. Sunlight was filtering in, getting brighter, brighter, brighter…

The Duet Paradox – Inferno :: TO BE CONTINUED ::

Chapter #0 – The Day Before the End

requiescat in pace

Latin phrase

  1. Rest in peace

It was during the two hour break between her lectures that Nova first read Mattie’s messages.

MATTIE
Sorry

MATTIE
I can’t make it again tdy!

MATTIE
Ttyl?

MATTIE
><

If Nova had been a young boy with the hots for Mattie, the disappointment might have been understandable; but though Nova had no romantic feelings for her classmate, she had hoped for something more out of their acquaintance than mere… acquaintance.

There was only about a month left until the finals for the semester, and it seemed as though the closer the date, the more unwilling Mattie was to attend classes. As Nova printed and paid for two sets of lecture notes, she counted the weeks since she last saw Mattie. In Nova’s bag were three other sets of lecture notes that Mattie had yet to collect from her; and now, one more.

For the next hour or so, Nova entertained herself in the library with books, ploughing through towers and towers of them like Usain Bolt with a new world record to beat. The first time Mattie witnessed this, she likened Nova’s shifting eyes to the needle of a sewing machine; a comparison which Nova still didn’t quite understood, despite having looked up videos of sewing machines on YouTube.

Each book didn’t take long to read. Nova sprawled excerpts of them on her outdated lecture notes, before replacing them back on their shelves. With just an hour left, Nova had only one more thing to do: she pulled out her laptop, but not before peeking to and fro to make sure no one saw its contents.

It was, as typical as any other undergraduate with a tight wallet, an illegal digital copy of her textbook. Considering the original thing would have taken no less than a hundred dollars out her wallet, Nova looked at this copy with the same enthusiasm as a desperately hungry puppy would at a bowl of cheap snacks.

But her joy was cut short. A wind, maybe several degrees below zero, blew upon her back.

An otherworldly face was reflected on her laptop.

The shock was momentary, but the damage was done — Nova’s eyes had met with that of the spectre’s reflection. Oh no. She forced herself to focus on the text as she scrolled down the screen, but soon realised that it was unnatural for anyone, even her, to scroll that fast.

She needed to look for something else. Act natural. Act natural.

Goosebumps rose on her skin as she hurried to move her mouse. The figure had re-positioned itself behind her, its gaze burning through her cold back. Fire and ice. Lovely combination.

Nope. Nope nope nope nope.

Nova flipped to a new window, and flooded her screen with pictures of baby animals.

Oh, cute puppies. Yes, cute cute kittens. Yes yes.

There was nothing behind her. Nope, none at all.

There were a few unusual characters around the library — Nova knew this since almost a year ago when she entered it for the very first time. It was usually fine with Melissa by her side, dutifully shooing away all potential threats; sometimes even Mattie’s presence would have helped deter them, but Nova had taken a chance this time by coming without either of them. There hadn’t been much of a choice with seats in university after all (she was lucky enough to have found this spot with a charging port), and those of their kind that linger in a place so crowded by the living tend to be shier too. They were unlikely to approach her in the daytime in a crowd of other people — but, of course, there would always be a first for everything.

The cold was relentless. Nova shivered.

The spectre’s head was right beside hers.

Nova looked away, shrugging away the cold. There was a brush of freezing air as the ghostly figure dashed to the other side, trying to get in her face. A widening, menacing smile was on his lips. She turned the other way.

“Hey!” the ghost cried, grabbing her collar.

Her chair screeched. Dammit! She imagined the stares that had likely gathered on her, but resisted the urge to confirm it.

“Oi. You’re Chara right?” the ghost said. He had the air of a young gangster, the usual ah bengs that linger at the end of staircases or behind apartment buildings while chugging cigarettes; the ones that passing kids stare at with wide-eyes, and are quickly warned by their moms with the strict instruction to do well in school or risk becoming one of them.

It was with that same gangster air that the ghost jerked his head upwards, glaring at Nova from behind his nose as though to state his superiority.

Nova sighed.

“Oi! You hear me or not!?” He was livid.

Melissa often told her, “You have no obligation to answer if they cannot even be bothered with basic manners.”

There was no need to answer him. Nova pursed her lips. But the ghost wasn’t going to take the hint. With a forceful pull, Nova was jerked backwards off her seat.

She yelped as she landed on her back. A dissonant ring echoed in her ears as her head met with the carpeted floor. Surprised faces surrounded her and her collapsed chair lay at her feet.

She had to act fast. Still partially deaf from the impact, Nova picked herself up and threw her leg for a kick. But her balance was off. Her flying foot missed its mark.

Wham! There was a silent cry from her mind and her victim’s scrunched mouth as her shin met with his groin. The ghost’s glare crumpled in the span of a second, eyes wide and mouth shrunken to a half-frown, half-pout. He toppled over mid-air, grabbing the area between his legs as a howl overcame him.

Oops. That was not the place she’d been aiming for.

Nova took a peek around her. She picked up her laptop and bag, and dashed out of the library.

It was still early afternoon. Students were walking to and fro from their lunch break to their next class, some in groups, chattering with wild laughter, while others walked with books in hand, absorbed in their phones. Nova dashed through the masses with soft ‘Excuse me’s and ‘Sorry’s, not daring to turn around lest she meets the eyes of more ghosts.

Ghosts were commonplace in her world; though Nova had researched many ways to remove her ‘gift’ (Melissa called it a ‘curse’, but Nova preferred a more optimistic approach), she realised that those who spoke or wrote of them often had no idea what they were actually like. Some referred to them as phantoms from people’s past, or their mind’s way of protecting them from self-deprecation. Others seem to present all ghostly activity as ominous or malicious, but from Nova’s experience she found ghosts to be more reasonable than the living — there is often a sort of wise distain they gain from crossing the planes, much like how an adult would look at the folly of a teenager.

Nova took a pause behind a pillar, shaking the cold, numbing sensation from her leg where she had touched the ghost. Nope, nope. People walked past her, loud and rowdy, their figures melting into a mass of colours and shapes. She kept her things in her bag, stuffing them in without any regard to the meticulousness she had used to pack it the night before. Who has time for that now, anyway? She pulled up the zip and threw it over her shoulder.

A cold wind caught her back. Again.

She froze. The students around her walked without pause, some noticing her sudden stop but returning to their lives just as quickly as they’d been distracted. Nova received their glances, each one nothing more than a curious young adult, but to Nova their raised brows and frowns only served to twist their features into something menacing.

A figure threw itself before her. She yelped. The male student, stunned by her cry, apologised and darted back among his friends, who laughed amidst unintelligible cries. Embarrassed, Nova ran from the pathway and stopped behind another pillar to catch her breath.

Nova had handled that library ghost well (right in his manhood), but apparently that had done little to deter him. Nova scolded herself for her timidness, and contemplated if she should peek behind the pillar at her guest. Was he doing it to spite her?

She took a deep breath. She felt the warm, humid air fill her lungs, stretching her diaphragm and releasing all the pent-up stress in her body. Looking around, she saw a gap between the students walking by. She ran.

Some eyes were on her, but Nova went on imagining that she was late for a class. She rubbed her arms to quell her goosebumps, but they stood strong on her skin. A cold breeze brushed against her neck, the sensation sticking to her back like hardened glue, but Nova kept herself from shivering and willed the heat in her legs to make it all go away.

Nope nope nope nope nope.

She needed a secluded place. The stairs! She threw open the door to the emergency staircase and hurried down the steps, her feet sounding explosions against the tiles. She could hear the usual commotion coming from the open door, but the noise faded slower than usual, before the door slammed shut to silence her movements.

Now what? Nova continued down the stairs, leaping two, three steps at a time, clenching her teeth in fear that she might bite her tongue. Her legs weren’t used to this, and each time she landed they protested with sharp pain striking her sole. But she persisted, heat and pain growing in the back of her throat, cold in her limbs and fingers, when she finally reached the last flight of stairs.

She figured she could face the ghost directly. Two floors down was the lowest basement, where the car park was. No one used the stairs there.

At that thought she spun around, ready to face the otherworldly mass that was approaching her.

The door beside her swung open.

In a moment of panic, Nova turned away from the ghost to look at the opened door, scanning for the living being that might have entered. It was empty. Nova let out a sigh of relief, when — Dammit! Her vision spun, as gravity pulled her backwards.

Her foot had missed the edge of the stairs; and as though her senses were mocking her, she could see it all in slow motion.

A leg crumpled behind her— Upper body lunged backwards—  Upside down— Steps approaching behind her head— Leg trapped between her body and the stairs— It’ll break it’ll break— No way to stop this—

Nova flung her body to the side. She felt her thigh collide with the tip of a step as her bag slipped from her shoulder. The metal rails rang with an ear-piercing ‘Clang!’ as her body slammed into it. There was a dissonance, a ‘ringing in her ears’ as someone might put it, a ringing that she was grateful for as she spun down the stairs. When her head hit the corner of a step, she barely felt it. When she slammed into a wall, there was only relief.

A small shadow dashed towards her and tried to pick up her dislodged bag. But, as though to deny its wishes, its hands phased right through the straps, leaving the bag untouched and unmoving against the stairs. Its head turned and turned — between the bag and Nova — before it came to float before her eyes, the face of a young boy, looking almost close to tears.

A young boy. A teenager. Maybe just a teen. Not the library ghost, but someone much younger. When his tears spilled, Nova knew it was only a projection, and that it would fade to mist before they reached the ground. With her mind going blank, she tried to recall why she had been trying so hard to run away in the first place.

The boy’s concern was clear in his eyes as he muttered an apology. Or she thought he did. She couldn’t hear him. There was static in his voice. And white. White in his face. White on the stairs. White everywhere. White. White. White.

 

♫♩♫♩♪

As fate would have it, a car was cruising along the roads around the time Nova had opened her laptop to read.

Inside the car, Dante kept cursing. Oh, how he loved being alone. He had all the freedom in the world. No offending anyone. No persons judging his every movement. No gossips behind his back. No one. No one at all!

Dante drove through the highway at a speed slower than average. He let many other cars overtake his, cursed right back at the honking of drivers, all the while happy to buy some time to swear alone. They lived in a painfully small country, and no matter how faraway his sister’s office was he could reach there in no time. Especially so in a car. Oh god, if only there was traffic! He would have a topic to vent his frustration, an excuse to slack off from his work, and a reason to put off meeting Viola. Kill two birds with one stone, and you get to eat their eggs too.

Dante was on his way to his eldest sister’s office — a prospect he did not enjoy. Of his four sisters (yes, four), Viola was the one he could handle the least. Much of it could be attributed to all the traumatic experiences she had forced on him in his childhood, most of which were due to her (notorious) fame as a genius fashion designer. It was because of her that he had to work part-time as a model for a whole year (under the scrutiny of all those she had offended). A whole, fucking year. And what did he get in the end? Not a damn thing!

Fuck modelling! And fuck fashion!

Dante now worked as an editor of a fashion magazine. He would have avoided it if he could, had he not come to the hateful realisation that he had no skills worthy of a career. His colleagues had, since his arrival, pushed all contact with the narcissistic, egoistic and flamboyant designer (i.e. Viola) onto him. Which made the nature of his job all the more sketchy; not as though he particularly excelled in it, anyway.

As he tried to figure out the cause of his current predicament, Dante noticed a strange smell rising from his car — a smoky, choking smell, like that of car exhaust. Dante coughed, stunned, and only then did he notice the fog that had begun to cloud his vision. The smoke had filled the inside of his car, but much of it was emitting from outside, under the hood.

He tried steering his wheel to manoeuvre the car to the side of the road. But the wheel was not responding, and even as he hit the brakes his car continued onwards, gaining speed down a slope.

He was in trouble. Viola and his office be damned — he needed to get out of this car. He fumbled for his seat-belt, the air like flames licking his skin as the car headed sled down the road. With a click, the seat-belt came loose, and he threw himself onto the road. His car continued down the slope like a can of teargas. Dante tried to calculate the exact distance he had travelled in it to make it break like that.

Welp. At least there isn’t much traffic.

A honk came from his side, and a moment of what felt like hot wind blew through his skin. He only had time to turn his head.

There was no pain. At least, not at first. And there was no sound. Or perhaps the impact had deafened him to the point where he could hear nothing.

But it was only an instant. Noise exploded in his ears as he heard himself shatter the windshield, bounce over the roof of the car, and hit the painful asphalt. He heard his bones crack. He felt his broken ribs puncture his insides, and the blood flooding his organs. He felt his whole body crashing down as a second car dragged him along, turning him over and over under its wheels. He felt each sickening thud of his fading heartbeat ring through his head, before he flopped down to the road like a scrap of unused cloth. Then everything stopped.

The pain was mild; he was in shock. But his brain knew. He knew.

There were cars coming to a stop, drivers and passengers running out to check his well-being. Someone screamed. Another voice called for someone and said nonsensical things. Someone shouted for an ambulance. A few asked if he was okay.

For some reason, he felt like crying. He lay on the road, the blue sky shining in his eyes. Damn sun. He never thought it was that bright. It was almost white, and a ring of rainbow was encircling it.

There was noise coming from all around him, of screams, of panic, of concern. Yet, lying there in the pool of his own blood, Dante felt… serene.

The Duet Paradox – Inferno :: TO BE CONTINUED ::